Like its famous cigars, Cuba remains elusive, richly layered and tightly rolled.
Its economic, social and political dichotomies fascinated us on our recent trip.
Against a lush, green backdrop, yoked oxen plow fertile fields of tobacco, sugar cane and corn, but, according to our local guide, the country imports an astounding 80% of its food.
A living museum of beautifully maintained, vintage, American cars roll merrily through city streets and suggest a country that has been frozen in time. But, as my sweaty camera strap will attest, Cuba is anything but frozen.
Cuba’s socialist hybrid government, “Fidelism” to some, keeps a firm grip on the daily activities of its citizens with limited Internet access, rigid ration cards, restricted distributions of piped in water, and regulated recreation. But, as an architect explained to us during a tour of Old Havana, there is no eminent domain. The government owns the land, the families own the homes. The result is a reconstruction nightmare.
Old Havana has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site, but, in order to restore the homes, the families have to be relocated and no one wants to go. In one situation, a single family home houses 20 families and not one will agree to move. This unlikely stalemate has lasted six years.
Three of Cuba’s “no’s” might explain another interesting dichotomy in a country many consider third world: the life expectancy in Cuba is 78.55, a hair shy of the United States’ 79.
- No charge for education. If you have the grades, you can continue through school all the way to your doctorate, medical or legal license for free.
- No need for insurance as all medical care is free and burial expenses are nominal.
- No guns. Hunters rent them directly from game farms and return them before they leave.
The American embargo against Cuba, instituted in 1960 in response to the Cuban missile crisis, remains. Americans are still barred from traveling to Cuba as tourists, though, while we were in Cuba, the U.S. Department of Transportation granted permission for commercial flights to Cuba that could begin as early as this fall. We went on a chartered flight as members of Tauck Tours People to People cultural exchange.
Educational in nature, our trip took us to a tobacco farm and factory, an after school program, a dance studio, an urban art center, a Little League baseball diamond, a cooking school, Ernest Hemingway’s home, an architectural tour, a presentation by an economist, and historic sites throughout Havana.
We ate in most of our meals in paladares, Cuban restaurants run by private citizens out of their own homes.
I can’t cram all of our experiences into one post and this one is already too long, but I am looking forward to telling more stories about some of the really interesting things we saw.
Most memorable for us were the people — those with whom we traveled, those we formally met, and those we saw going about their daily business in a country that finds itself possibly on the verge of some astounding changes.